Dennis Peron made San Francisco the most pot-tolerant city in America. Now he?s tired, evicted, and facing jail.
Dennis Peron, 52-year-old marijuana activist and provider, is many things to many people. Some call him “Saint Dennis of San Francisco”, while his more virulent detractors describe him as “drug-dealing faggot scum.”
In the last quarter century, he’s made his adopted home town of San Francisco into the most pot-friendly city in the US, selling literally tons of cannabis to “recreational” and medicinal users alike.
He’s also been a potent political activist who helped convince California voters to legalize medical pot in 1996, and who founded America’s first above-ground medical marijuana club, which in its heyday served nearly 10,000 clients.
Peron is now being hounded by cops, traitors and pot-hating politicians. His future is uncertain, and could include serving time in prison.
This article describes the tumultous last days of Peron’s Cannabis Cultivator’s Club, and the life and times of a man whose motto is: “This isn’t about pot, it’s about love.”
Foreclosed on 4-20
San Francisco ? April 17, 1998: Dennis Peron smiles at me from behind his desk in the second floor office of his Cannabis Cultivator’s Club. The charismatic, white-haired founder of America’s biggest medical marijuana organization, and the most visible sponsor of Proposition 215, the groundbreaking medical marijuana law passed by Californians in 1996, is surrounded by acolytes, lawyers and reporters.
His desk’s glass top is littered with sticky buds, half-smoked joints, ashes, vials of cannabis extract, coffee cups, rolling papers, bubblers, court documents, Peron for Governor bumper stickers, and dog hair (courtesy of Peron’s ever-present white miniature Pomeranian, named Pinky).
On a legal pad next to the phone, Peron’s scrawled handwriting records calls for help. Among them, an elderly female cancer patient, whose doctor was afraid to write her a prescription for her medicine. The physician believed that the federal government might arrest him if he wrote the dying woman a recommendation for marijuana.
Peron and his entourage are in crisis mode, dismayed by a judge’s order that the Cannabis Club must close. The ruling legitimized a lawsuit filed by California’s Attorney General, the pot-hating Dan Lungren. Peron and Lungren have a dysfunctional relationship: they are rival candidates in California’s gubernational primary, and Lungren has for years used the power of his office against Peron and his causes, including Prop 215.
Now, a judge has agreed with Lungren that Peron’s club is a “public nuisance,” and has ordered the local sheriff to invade the club, evict Peron, confiscate contraband, and change the locks.
When I’d talked to Peron two months earlier, he’d expected Lungren’s Bureau of Narcotics Enforcement agents to storm the club during business hours, when it was serving hundreds of the nearly 10,000 members whose doctors had recommended medical marijuana. He’d envisioned narcs dragging people out of their wheelchairs to paddy wagons.
Now, he was more sanguine.
“This is the first bust I’ve ever had where they’ve called ahead to schedule an appointment,” he said. “Sheriff Mike Hennessey said he’d be here Monday afternoon.”
“Monday?” I asked. “Do you realize what date that is?”
Peron squinted through swirling cannabis smoke to look at a calendar, then pointed to the 4:20 emblem bordered by pot leaves sewn onto the baseball hat of a person standing nearby.
“4-20,” he replied, savouring the irony. “Forced out on 4-20. Perfect.”
The Last Supper
San Francisco ? April 20, 1998: Peron takes me on a guided tour of the club, which is still providing medicine to patients, just hours before the scheduled bust. Through labyrinths of hallways and locked doors, 30,000 square feet of wall murals, bud bars, couches, windows opening onto the hurtling Market Street traffic, the locked-down anteroom where a dozen people were weighing and bagging piles of marijuana varietals: the browns of Mexico, the greens of Berkeley, the tawney purples of Northern California outdoor hybrids, stuffing medicine into plastic bags marked 4 ****, Special, and Good Medicine.
We strolled to the basement, our progress impeded by people hugging and kissing Peron, giving him roses, stuffed animals and other gifts, saying “Love ya Dennis.”
The budding Afghani clones I’d seen during an earlier visit to the basement grow room had been sent to Peron’s marijuana farm and hospice 100 miles away in rural Lake County. Pointing to a pile of rockwool, stems, leaves and other debris, Peron says, “We have to leave the sheriffs something to confiscate. They’ll be cleaning the building for us.”
Back in the upstairs office again, Peron smiles ruefully as he cleans off his desk and prepares for eviction. Into a box go joints, buds, scribblings, a flowering pot plant.
“It’s weird,” he said, studying the plant’s resin glands. “Despite all the pot I’ve sold, I’ve never grown any. Last weekend I was on the farm in the country air. It felt good, but my damn back is sore from working the soil. No wonder this stuff costs so much. It’s hard work!”
He looks around his office, at the long shelf behind his desk crammed with artifacts, awards, Tums, stuffed animals, kachina dolls, flowers, photos of Peron with mayors, senators, presidents.
“God, I love this place,” he tells me, his voice choked with emotion. “This is my baby. All the people we’ve helped here, a lot of them are dead. The forces of evil won this battle, but they can’t kill the dream. Hazel Rodgers will take over as head of the new Cannabis Healing Centre, which opens right here tomorrow. They’ll never stop us.”
Rodgers, a 79-year-old medical marijuana user and activist, sits down in Peron’s chair. Peron’s political manager John Entwistle hands her a pipe filled with sticky Kind. Rodgers takes toke after toke for photojournalists’ cameras until her eyes become as glassy as the pipe.
“I’m honoured to be able to help Dennis,” she says, in a kindly, grandmotherly way. “I’ve got glaucoma, breast cancer and a lot of other health problems. The government would be crazy to put a sick old lady in jail.”
As eviction hour approaches, Peron huddles with his inner circle of advisors: Entwistle, spinmeister extraordinaire, seated at Peron’s right; Geo and Randi, the indefatigable female administrators who handle hundreds of phone calls and disasters every day; Wayne Justmann, Peron’s security officer, a bear of a man who looks like he would pick up the diminutive Peron and cradle him in his arms if danger was imminent. Well-wishers stream in, offering food, condolences, solidarity. Peron’s dog Pinky barks in his sleep.
Somebody hands Peron a bowl of clam chowder.
“Have the chemists tested this?” he asks. “Do we know what kind of poison Lungren put in it? Is it one we have antidotes for?”
Peron’s humour lowers the tension in the crowded, humid office. Peron kneels on the floor, puts a spoon into the gooey chowder.
“The Last Supper,” he says. As he savours his first mouthful, Sheriff Hennessey walks in with the eviction order; a thousand photo-flashes freeze the scene like strobes at a rave.
“This is no longer my club,” Peron shouts. “We have to get out.”
Like a slithering snake, a heavily-armed special forces team infiltrates from the rear of the building. Burly, hard-faced cops station themselves at all entrances and exits, a locksmith sneaks in carrying drills and a tool kit. Peron begins the sad journey downstairs, an adored, soon-to-be-exiled king surrounded by his court. Staffers shout “PERON, PERON, PERON” from upstairs windows. The street crowds echo the chant until it become a resounding accolade.
I photograph frantically, throwing lenses around, fumbling with films and focus. I notice a shopping bag nearby, overflowing with cash destined for an AIDS research foundation. Why are Peron’s people leaving it? More crumbs for the police?
Entwistle suddenly appears behind me.
“You’re the last person up here,” he yells, exasperated. “Run! The police are coming. They’ll bust you.”
I throw my camera gear into the camera bag and sprint out the front doors. A huge mean-looking cop tails me, muttering under his breath.
The other cops are relatively relaxed, considering the dozens of protesters smoking pot and protesting in front of them, but Meancop is googly-eyed, ready for action.
“Hey, we need to bring in a head-knocking crew and clean the freaks off this sidewalk,” he says to a colleague.
He puts on leather gloves and nervously fingers his holstered gun. Intermittently, he lunges forward, making menacing hand gestures, yelling “Move back, move back!”
Hennessey beckons Justmann and Peron to enter the club. Justmann later explains that Hennessey found the bag of AIDS money. Instead of confiscating it, he wanted Peron to have it.
As Peron enters, Meancop glares at him. Peron is inside, clearly visible through the glass. Meancop narrows his eyes, bounces up and down on his heels.
“Get the little faggot out of there ? he’s evicted,” he says.
Justmann and Peron are at the door; they’ll have to get past Meancop to exit the club.
“I’d like to be your next governor,” Peron says with a smile to Meancop, who slinks backwards, reluctantly allowing Peron safe passage.
The Death of History
“I grew up on Long Island in the 50’s, when it was still a real island, with sand dunes, shore birds, no traffic jams,” Peron told me once. “My family was Italian-American middle-class. I wasn’t a particularly rebellious kid, but by the time I was a teenager, I was kind of rebelling against the Catholic Church. I’d confess to the priest about sexual thoughts, and he’d tell me to do thousands of Our Fathers. It was almost a relief when I got drafted to go to Vietnam. That was the start of the journey that landed me here.”
Peron left home in 1967, having enlisted in the Air Force after being drafted by the Army. After basic training, he spent a month-long leave in San Francisco.
“I wasn’t politically astute when I left Long Island, ” he recalls. “I’d smoked some pot, but hadn’t experienced the hippie revolution. San Francisco schooled me. I fell in with the Diggers, who were leading street-theatre protests. The cops were vicious, beating us over the head, trying to run us out of town. I lived on the street, ate acid and felt like part of a family, a revolution.”
In Vietnam in the winter of 1968, Peron was face to face with the horrors of war.
“War forces you to know mortality,” he said. “During the Tet offensive, the artillery, fires and jets were nightmares buzzing in my skull. I figured I might die soon, so I finally admitted to myself I was a gay man, finally made love with another man. Later on, the military turned my mail room job into a gruesome duty; I had to stuff bodies into body bags. I spent the whole time wondering how our government could be so crazy. I’m still wondering.”
When Peron returned to San Francisco after surviving Vietnam, he brought a commitment to pacifism and Buddhism, along with two pounds of strong Asian marijuana.
“A pound of pot cost $100,” Peron remembers. “You’d sell an ounce, a ‘lid’, for ten or twenty. You could pay the rent, and have some stash to smoke. I lived in a commune called the Big Top. We had baskets stuffed with different kinds of pot. My brother Neil and I put a restaurant together with a pot store ? what a great business idea! People got the munchies upstairs and went downstairs to eat at the Island [restaurant]. It was the place to be, lots of rallies for the environment and peoples’ rights, filled with yippies and progressive politicians like Harvey Milk.”
Milk was Peron’s mentor, a radical politician who taught Peron how to build street-savvy coalitions of people persecuted by society ? homosexuals, environmentalists, pot smokers. But when Milk told the media that Peron’s “pot supermarket” was a community service, the cops moved in.
“They came like thieves,” Peron says, recalling the 1977 bust. “They weren’t identifying themselves as police; they didn’t look like police. I’d been robbed before, had knives and guns pulled on me, been hog-tied, scared to death. I thought these cops were robbers, so I picked up a big bottle and held it over my head at the top of the stairs and said “Go away you fucker,” and the guy shot me with a dum-dum bullet in my right leg. It exploded inside my leg, shattering my femur. I felt another bullet go whizzing past my head. The cop said I was a ‘motherfucking faggot,’ said he was sorry he hadn’t killed me so there’d be one less queer in San Francisco. I thought that would get my case dismissed, but I ended up doing six months in jail.”
While in jail, Peron wrote a successful pro-marijuana local ballot initiative and ran for elected office. He completed his sentence and again began selling pot. Then came darker days: Harvey Milk was assassinated by a homophobic ex-cop, AIDS began to ravage San Francisco’s gay community, and Peron was busted at least a dozen more times.
“The best thing about the 1980’s was that I met a wonderful young man, Jonathan West, who was my partner for seven years,” Peron says. “He had AIDS. Marijuana was his best medicine. The cops came in one night, while he was dying, and stole four ounces of pot that we had been using as medicine. They tried to force him to testify against me. After he died, I looked around and realized that so many of our friends, all the sweet, funny people we had smoked and protested with, were dead. My history had died. And that was when I know I had to make marijuana available to everyone who needed it.”
Prisoners of the Drug War
Jonathan’s death caused Peron to supercharge his political activism, sponsoring successful referendums which revealed strong support for decriminalizing marijuana use and sales in San Francisco. He opened a small medical marijuana club in an upstairs loft near San Francisco’s predominantly gay Castro district in 1992. The club became extremely popular, so Peron moved it to a five-story high-rise building near San Francisco’s fabled financial district.
The new venture, which Peron ultimately named the “Cannabis Cultivators’ Club,” become an effective social service agency, serving nearly 10,000 patients and housing “Californians For Compassionate Use,” Peron’s political organization which successfully convinced California voters to legalize medical marijuana by voting for Proposition 215 in 1996. Three former presidents, Bill “I didn’t inhale” Clinton, California’s US senators and hordes anti-pot minions spent millions of dollars telling Californians not to vote for 215; Peron and his allies won anyway. The club also housed Peron for Governor headquarters, and had been lauded by the city’s mayor, district attorney and health department as an asset to San Francisco.
“The club took on a life of its own,” Peron explained. “When we first started, it was mostly for AIDS patients. Then, we started seeing different ailments and found that pot helped those people too. We’ve provided a refuge for sick people, a place of empowerment, education and healing. It’s friendly and clean. We proved that marijuana is good medicine, and that people who use marijuana are good people.”
The non-profit, self-supporting enterprise became a beacon of hope for marijuana activists, homeless people, sick people and civil libertarians. It wasn’t Amsterdam West ? it was a church, a welfare agency, a multi-ethnic family where people of all socioeconomic classes, sexual orientations and political persuasions could harmoniously interact and share herb.
“Dennis Peron saved my life,” a woman told me. “I have Multiple Sclerosis. I couldn’t afford my medicine. Dennis helped me move here from Bakersfield, he gave me medicine, and a place to stay. Now, I’m a registered nurse. I owe a lot to him and this place. This is my family.”
Many club members told me the same kind of story, but Attorney General Dan Lungren despised Peron and the club, and twice arrested Peron in an unsuccessful effort to derail Prop 215.
When Peron began running against Lungren in the 1998 governor’s race, Lungren responded by filing lawsuits against Peron, sending undercover agents into the club, harassing medical marijuana growers and users. The federal government also hounded Peron and interfered with implementation of Prop 215, claiming that federal anti-marijuana laws superseded legalization of medical marijuana by California’s voters.
With the noose tightening around his neck, Peron zigged and zagged to stay ahead of his pursuers. He established a small pot farm in California’s rural Lake County, where medical users became medical growers.
“Even the most rigid interpretation of Prop 215 cannot take away people’s rights to grow their own pot,” Peron said. “We’ve given them a place to do it. It’s great out there in the country in the fresh air. A lot better for sick people than the city. I’ve never grown before, so it’s cool to see the plants coming along. We’re going to have a great harvest.”
Peron told me in April that Lake County Sheriff Rodney Mitchell had “agreed to allow the farm to operate,” but on May 16, several of Mitchell’s deputies and at least 20 federal Drug Enforcement Agents swept down on the farm. The agents put guns to the heads of four patients, handcuffed them and ripped down 238 plants from Peron’s outdoor gardens.
“The agents admitted they were trying to disrupt Dennis’ gubernational campaign and his campaign to implement Prop 215,” said John Entwistle, who was one of the four men held hostage at the farm. “They stole our medicine and our computers. It was a fascist and vicious act that totally violated the spirit and the letter of the law.”
Peron responded to the raid by inviting the press to a replanting ceremony the following day. Using donated clones and seedlings, Peron, Hazel Rodgers and several patients planted 75 plants while newscopters circled overhead.
“We invited the DEA,” Peron quipped, “but I think one raid per season is really quite enough. they wouldn’t be so gauche as to come back again so soon.”
But the month of May held more cruelty for Peron. A judge ruled that federal marijuana prohibition nullified Prop 215, especially as it related to a club’s right to provide marijuana for patients; another ruling ordered the Cannabis Healing Centre run by Hazel Rodgers to close. Peron threw a “get out the vote” party there on Saturday night, May 23, but spent most of the evening conferring with advisors, some of whom wanted to resist the centre’s closure with massive civil disobedience.
“Look at those steel girders,” a man said, “If we locked down to those, it would take them hours to cut through. You can’t just let them close us without a fight. We’ve come too far to just sell out.”
“I just don’t think it’ll be worth it,” Peron responded wearily. “People could get hurt. What would we accomplish?”
Late Sunday evening, Peron and Hazel Rodgers decided to close the club voluntarily. But early Monday morning, before they had a chance to articulate their decision in public, 30 sheriff deputies stormed in, evicting sick people who had been living in the building, again changing the locks. Sheriff Hennessey stationed deputies at 1444 Market indefinitely. Outside on the sidewalk, medical marijuana patients and Peron for Governor staffers chanted “Health not war!” It was a national holiday ? Memorial Day ? meant to honour war veterans.
“We are all veterans of the drug war,” Peron said. “A terrible war, with no winners. Everybody loses, even me.”
Carrying the Cross
In today’s world, where cynical disillusionment provides convenient excuse for not believing in anyone or anything, Dennis Peron is an anomaly: an internationally-revered medical marijuana activist, a man loved by many, hated by some, described by people who know him as a modern-day Martin Luther King, Ghandi, even Jesus.
“Frankly, I don’t like it,” he responded, when I asked how he felt about being viewed as a holy man and martyr. “I didn’t choose this ? it chose me. I’m tired. My dad just died. My mom is sick. The narcs have been beating me up for years. Every day I wake up knowing that a bunch of ignorant people with guns and badges are going to do vicious stuff to me. I’m just a gay man who loves people and marijuana, but the dummies see me as Dennis the menace.”
Perhaps it comes with the territory. Like King, Ghandi and Christ, Peron gave hope and political power to people criminalized and despised by a repressive power elite. He teaches poor people, sick people, gay people and pot people to believe in themselves and the political process, to non-violently fight evil, to make good out of bad. Peron is almost a dinosaur, one of the few remaining “60’s radicals,” with links to free love, the hippie era and grassroots activism. San Francisco is becoming super-yuppiefied, less tolerant of poor people, environmentalists, bicyclists, street protests.
“Yes, this country is becoming harder,” Peron admitted. “The old populists are forgotten or dead. The oligarchy has done a good job against us.”
Like populist leaders before him, Peron has paid dearly for his efforts. It didn’t surprise me when an anti-marijuana cop told me Peron was a “low-life, drug-dealing faggot scum,” but it did surprise me when a Northern California outdoor pot cultivator said, “I voted against 215. If Peron had his way, everyone will be able to grow their own pot. It’ll lower the prices. I count on the money. I went to sell him my harvest last season, and he only gave me $3000 per pound. He sells at street prices. I think he’s getting rich.”
Peron looked hurt when I told him what the grower said.
“Every cent we get goes back to the club and to the patients,” he protested. “We give away 10 pounds of pot to indigent people every week. We buy them food, give them a place to shower and sleep. I don’t even have a car. This isn’t about money, this is about love.”
But love is in short supply, even in “liberal” San Francisco.
“A big problem,” a talk show caller told Peron, “is that on TV these people at your club are smiling and laughing. They don’t look sick enough. They look like refugees from the 60’s. It sends the wrong message to kids. It makes pot look like it’s entertaining.”
“These people are dying!” Peron responded with indignant sarcasm. “I’m glad they’re having fun. I’m so sorry you don’t like the way these patients look. Maybe I should dress them in drab clothes, tell them to look unhappy. Is that what you want?”
Peron says he has enough love to forgive even the Judases around him.
“I know we’ve been infiltrated,” he told me. “There are informants working here, we just can’t figure out who they are. People who’ve stolen from me, hit me from behind. Narcs come here with phony prescriptions and lie to us, then bust us for having compassion, for providing medicine. Do these people have a conscience at all? Have any of these people who oppose us ever had a shred of compassion?”
Peron admits he is saddened by recent events, but he has a well-tested method for dealing with depression.
“I’ve probably smoked an average of 10 joints a day for the last 25 years,” he says, rolling a phattie. “The Columbian Gold, the Sensi, the Jamaican, the indoor, the outdoor. It’s my medicine. Pot has to be real good before I can feel it. If it hits me, I know it’s the best.”
But getting high doesn’t change the difficulties of Peron’s situation. He finished a respectable fifth in a field of 17 candidates for governor in California’s June primary (even though he’d been evicted from his campaign headquarters before the campaign ended), but Lungren won the Republican nomination, and could become California’s governor. If Lungren and the feds have their way, Peron will end up broke and in prison. His life is plagued by court dates and conflicts, causing him to wistfully recall easier days spent mountain climbing, smoking herb, enjoying life instead of trying to fight the world’s injustices.
“They hate me. They hate pot. They want to destroy me and people like me,” he said. “It’s who they are, what they’re good at ? hating. I’ve been in jail before. Until they respect the law we passed, I’m in jail anyway. America is in jail.”
Peron, The Movie
I want to make a movie about Dennis Peron, but I’d have to build a time machine to get the actor I want. A young and glowing Robert Redford would be the actor I’d cast in the role of Dennis Peron. I think that the young Redford, the Redford we saw in movies like The Natural, just might be able to capture Dennis’ courage, shyness and wit.
At least I have my photos and my memories: there’s Dennis ? waving to the cheering, rain-soaked crowd at last year’s Seattle Hempfest. Or emerging, tousled but grinning, from a sleeping bag on the ground at the end of last year’s World Hemp Expo Extravaganja in Oregon.
I remember when he was cornered by a deranged person on a stairway at the club, and how he gently calmed the would-be assailant, then winked at me and said “See how much fun it is running a pot club?”
I see him in the 1997 Pride Parade in San Francisco, grand marshal of the whole wild spectacle, in the back of a plush, gold convertible with “Brownie Mary” Rathburn, an elderly lady arrested four times for cooking pot brownies for AIDS patients. Behind the car are several hundred medical marijuana users, some in wheelchairs, some smoking bongs, carrying signs, singing songs. The parade route is lined with hundreds of thousands of people who cheer politely for politicians, Super Bowl-winning football stars, Hollywood celebs, dykes on bikes. But when Peron and Brownie Mary roll by, people elbow each other. “Hey, it’s the medical pot guy and his wife,” they say. Their cheers, echoing off steel and glass high-rise buildings like waves crashing on the seashore, are deafening, louder than for anybody else in the all-day parade. The people love him.
But could my movie have a happy ending? Will this “Jesus” escape crucifixion? Will this Ghandi, Kennedy, King escape the assassin’s bullets?
Peron thinks I’m too morose; he says my apocalyptic speculations depress him.
“Hey guy,” he said, the last time I saw him, a big cloud of blueberry cannabis smoke pouring out of his well-seasoned lungs,”everything’s gonna be OK. Soon as I’m done with these trials and tribulations, I’m going to the mountains, to Yosemite. Going to the high country where I belong.”